Before I delve into ToQ, a note about a change to the TR project; due to the fact that I’ve switched over to playing these games on my PSP, which is about fifty times more comfortable for me for some reason, I’m not taking screenshots anymore. Fortunately, with a game this well-known that’s been out for this long, you can bet that someone else has taken great screens already, and that person is Katie. From here on out, unless I note otherwise, all screenshots come from the excellent Katie’s Tomb Raider Screenshots; Used with permission.
Oh, and it just sort of hit me the other day that since Tomb Raider is now owned by Square-Enix, there’s an otaku-connection there that I didn’t even realize. Go blog-cohesiveness!
Would You Like Some Tomb in Your Tomb Raider?
Level 4, Tomb of Qualopec, is actually the first tomb in all of Tomb Raider-dom; that sounds awfully significant. In fact, that makes me wish I liked it more.
Really, there’s nothing wrong with this level- it’s a respectable puzzle level 95% of the way through, if a little short, and the last 5% is remarkable due to actually exiting the temple and backtracking into the previous level (which is actually a lot more novel and exciting then it probably sounds) but it seems lackluster coming off of the Lost Valley high.
Last level: traverse vast distances, find loads of goodies tucked away in hidden alcoves, take in scenic views, and finally, meet lots of interesting dinosaurs and kill them all. This level: there are switches. Pulling them accomplishes things.
Still, the rampaging raptors add a bit of excitement to the otherwise dull proceedings; they’re a bit intimidating in these cramped surroundings.
Now, does anyone understand what’s going on with that one mummy whom Lara targets in this level? It would be one thing if you could shoot all the mummies, but the fact that only one of them can be targeted leads me to believe that he’s a special mummy- i.e., this is HIS tomb. Like, Qualopec himself sees what Lara’s about to do and isn’t keen on it. I like indulging the idea that some of the plot-related moments in this game are more subtle. EDIT: I have since read on the internet that this is widely believed to be the case by many TR fans; I guess I don’t get any analysis brownie points for this one.
This level also features a “boss” fight (a generous use of that term if ever there was one) with Larson, everyone’s favorite Southern stereotype dude. Stereotypes generally don’t even bother me (I just think of them as offensively hilarious), but I guess it’s worth pointing out that he is one nonetheless.
I find the conversation between Larson and Lara here more interesting than the rest of the actual level; not the bit about the scion, but the fact that Larson is threatening to shove something up Lara’s unmentionables, and she APOLOGIZES for interrupting him. I think this is what I initially loved about Lara’s character, and what’s been missing pretty much ever since; that absurd level of politeness, a relic of her prim and proper upbringing, that clashes tremendously with her day job. I don’t know, there’s something charming about a woman who will apologize to a cursing southern redneck (that she’s holding at GUNPOINT) because interrupting other people is just rude.
Showing his southern spirit, Larson cheerfully walks off the thirty or so rounds Lara introduced to his redneck hide. The first time I played this game, someone told me that Lara actually kills Larson here by snapping his neck with her kick; you can imagine how surprised I was when he started shooting at me later.
Best: Revisiting the previous level; revolutionary for the time, still surprising. The fact that there’s a new secret there is just icing on the cake. Of course, that means the best part of this level is technically STILL Lost Valley….
Worst: The spike pits that crop up all over the damn place. Okay, I understand the need for some challenge, but there’s something surprisingly gruesome about those primitive-looking spikes; yeah, you don’t see anything when Lara dies to them, but in some ways that just makes the idea of impalement worse.
Umm, why are they bloody? Do they actually get much use? If other people were impaled on these things, why are there no bodies? Wait, I’m just as happy they didn’t put in any bodies, that would be gross and I would have thrown down the controller, screaming. Calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean….
Rating: Three Uzi Clips out of five; it would be two Uzi Clips, however the last two minutes of the level elevate it considerably.
Next up: St. Francis’ Folly, or Let’s Get Vertical.
LV is one of those iconic levels that defines it’s era as much as it does the game; Not only is LV one of the things that tons of gamers are inclined to remember when they reflect on this era of gaming history, but it puts on display everything that was good about the early 3D era. This was when being able to explore a 3D world was completely new and exciting, and the very act of running around and looking for stuff was still fun, because you were not yet bored senseless by the very act of running around looking for stuff.
That said, the fun of the level isn’t limited to the original novelty value; most early 3D games that were fun at the time are nowhere near as memorable. Some would say that it’s the dinosaurs that make this level great, especially because the surprise arrival of the T-Rex boss is one of the most memorable moments in gaming, period. I would have been inclined to agree, but while replaying this level recently for the TR project, I realized it’s something else: this level takes letting you climb on stuff to a new frontier.
Sure, you can climb on stuff in tons of games, but Lost Valley is like the Citizen Kane of climbing on stuff: Do you see it? You can climb on it. Do you not see it? You can probably climb on it. You can climb on stuff that it makes no sense for you to be able to climb on. You can climb on stuff that in God’s name, you have no business climbing on, but there you are. Suddenly instead of a sedentary gamer and a reserved Miss Croft, you and Lara both are transformed into a wired three-year-old with ADHD who just ate a whole box of Chips Ahoy and isn’t about to stop until he’s put his tiny little feet on everything in the room. Only, instead of crying and being picked up by your mommy after your insane Romper-Room crazy-fest, you get to find the shotgun (finally).
“The One With All The Dinosaurs”
There is a slightly more subtle appeal to this level, in that it breaks your expectations of what the world of Tomb Raider is, and no matter what kind of technology they have at their disposal, no developer will be able to do this with the series again. Other than the fact that the wildlife in the previous two levels didn’t seem to have anything to eat, the world of TR up to this point has been fairly realistic. The ruins of the civilizations that Lara was exploring were rooted in reality (they say in the commentary for TR:A that archeologists actually found the real city of Vilcabamba in Peru not long after TR came out), and despite Lara’s monkey-like agility, the laws of physics seemed to be intact.
Then this level comes along, and you realize that instead of a stylized version of the real
world, you’re in a world where anything can happen. One minute you’re exploring realistic rocky caverns and shooting a few starving wolves (something you could do in real life if you were a bit of a strange individual and had no plans for the weekend), and the next minute you’re uncovering a valley hidden since before the Stone Age, and animals that have been extinct for billions of years are suddenly trying to eat you. But that doesn’t mean we’re off to crazy-town entirely; that historical foothold is always there, from the levels based on Greek mythology to serpentine Egyptian labyrinths. You can expect the grand majority of the game to be rooted in reality, but you can never let your guard down, because you never know when that bizarre alternate world is going to rise up and kick you out of your comfort zone with fanfare.
A lot of games try to do something similar and fail– it’s very easy for things to get over the top very quickly, and you cease being surprised by anything because your real-world expectations have been abandoned. In TR, there’s always that lure of actual history that drags you back from the edge, and the line between history and fantasy is handled with enough finesse that even though you know to expect the unexpected, the game can still throw you for a loop when it wants to.
This level also features one of the better puzzles in the game: It’s fairly intuitive, so you can figure it out without needing the design equivalent of a glowing neon sign over the solution, but not immediately obvious. There are also puzzles-within-puzzles, in that this is the first level that really requires you to understand Lara’s moveset. The standing jump, running jump, and back flip all have different distances and arcs, and navigating to the major set-piece of the level requires understanding which ones you need to do and in what order, and though it isn’t terribly difficult, you WILL spend a lot of time falling down the waterfall if you don’t pay attention.
By Tomb Raider III you needed to have a goddamned Masters Degree in Euclidean geometry to get across a small chasm, but at this point it was still fun.
Best: It’s hard to pick just one feature as the best of the level, but the secrets in general are fantastic. Some, like the one that requires hanging onto a waterfall show the game’s age, but they’re all satisfying to find– it’s like the game rewards you with free goodies for going as far off the beaten path as possible. There are 5 secrets this time around, too.
Worst: Uh…the whole game isn’t like this? Well, putting my great affection for this level aside for a moment, it takes a while to figure out what the objective of the level is– finding the cogs in the valley that will allow you to work the mechanism to close the sluice gate, granting access to the cavern behind the waterfall–and even when you’ve figured it out, it takes a while to find those suckers in the huge (for that time) valley. This level does take a long time on first play.
Rating: 5 Uzi Clips out of 5. Perhaps not the biggest surprise of the year.
The next level is the relatively pedestrian Tomb of Qualopec; I feel claustrophobic already.
Spoiler Warning: I mention plot points in Final Fantasy X and Metal Gear Solid in this entry. If you haven’t gotten around to playing either of those yet, you may want to just read the capsule review at the bottom.
“Vilcabamba” is a really fun word to say. Say it a few times and you’ll see what I mean. It also sounds like a delicious new flavor of Bubble Yum to me for some reason. This level really made me want gum.
These first few levels are going to get some of the longest write ups, both because they’re some of the most memorable, and they’re simply the ones I’ve played the most over the years. Like a lot of people, often I would pop in my TR disc and just play through the game up until somewhere around Tomb of Qualopec, and then move on, my tomb-raiding craving sated. I have played through the game in it’s entirety several times, but I’ve played through these first three or four levels way more times than any of the subsequent ones.
In the case of City of Vilcabamba, there’s a lot to talk about: The wolf ambush that begins the level, the completely optional underwater pathway, the three(!) secret rooms, the contrast between the simple architecture of the village square versus the grand architecture of the temple area, etc. However, I’m going to go in depth about NONE of those things in favor of A RELIGIOUS TOMB RAIDING EXPERIENCE. You’ll see.
Every once in a while in a game you get a moment where you really understand the feeling that the developers have been trying the whole game to put across to you; Any decent game will communicate the developer’s intentions to a certain extent, but great games often have one or more moments that crystallize the essence of the game.
For lack of a better term, I tend to call these video-game religious experiences, but while I originally was using the term jokingly, it’s not really as silly as it sounds. The traditional idea of a religious experience is a powerful, beautiful message from a God, or creator received by a normal person, a denizen of the world: A video game religious experience is a powerful, beautiful message from a creator, the creator of the game (and humans are at their most divine when they create their own worlds) to a normal person– a denizen of their fictional domain.
I’m an agnostic with no religious agenda, so if any of this is making you uncomfortable, don’t be: My point here is more about the potential for the creator of a game to move you, not about religion. If you don’t want to consider the religious parallel, just think of it as a moving experience.
Some examples of this phenomenon that I’ve found: In Final Fantasy X, when you’re on the road to Zanarkand after Tidus has finished telling his story (and you’re finally in the present), and everyone bands together to protect Yuna one last time, because the time is coming when they know they’ll never be able to protect her again; they don’t want to go forward, they want to stay on that journey forever, but they keep pushing forward, towards the dead world of Zanarkand, while the beautiful version of the main theme– Someday the Dream will End— plays in the background, fading slowly to the battle hymn of Zanarkand while the sky darkens and fills with pyreflies, the souls of the dead. In the original Metal Gear Solid, at the very end Naomi makes peace with Snake, and herself, as the sterile environment of the Shadow Moses nuclear facility is traded for beautiful footage of the Alaskan countryside– Snake is a creature of technology and war, like Shadow Moses, but when we see the snowy mountains and the wolves, we feel happy for him, because we know he’s going home. Even if just for a little while, he can have peace. And in Tomb Raider, there’s the suspended pathway in City of Vilcabamba.
I mentioned in the Caves write-up that music is used very sparingly in Tomb Raider, and scenes like this are the big payoff for that creative choice. Toward the end of the level, as Lara ascends a tower of broken platforms in what was once a beautiful temple, we hear Lara’s theme for the first time in the game. It plays in the menu, but it’s in this instance that we really pay attention to it. It’s a surprisingly sad, mellow song– the opposite of what you’d expect if your only exposure to Lara was through the movies, or even the more recent games. It’s a song that makes you think of lost beauty, and quiet reflection, and more than anything, being alone. It’s the sound of patience, and persistence: it’s the siren’s song of a puzzle you need to solve. If you have a copy of PS1 TR, you can put the disc into your computer and listen to it like a soundtrack, and see what I mean.
If Lara were in a lot of danger, with the kind of locked-door traps and spiked pits and stuff that start to pop up with increasing frequency later, Lara’s theme would seem out of place –it’s not a song of peril. But in this puzzle, there’s a safety net: the broken platforms are suspended, on both towers, over a pool of water. Even if Lara falls from on high, the water catches her harmlessly. Lara has to struggle to get to the top, but the tomb doesn’t really want her to fall. In one sense, she’s an invader– she’s “raiding” the premises– but this obstacle was not put in place to kill her. This was a city that was once alive, and though it’s been devastated by war, or famine, or disease, and it can never go back to that time when it was teeming with life, it can save this one lonely visitor, just this once. It will never let Lara in without making her work for it, but as long as she puts forth the effort, she’s allowed.
In this game, Lara and the tomb are always opposed to one another, as rivals, but never enemies: It’s not a battle, but a dialogue with the past, between this one mysterious woman and an even more mysterious place. In short, no matter how hard she fights, Lara is never trying to conquer the tomb; she’s trying to prove her worth. She’s trying to prove that she’s strong enough to be allowed inside. It’s not a battle, it’s courtship. Yes, there is a sexual reading there if you go in for that sort of thing, but honestly, that’s not what it’s really about.
And all of this is put across in about five seconds of gameplay: Lara ascends, the music plays, Lara falls, the water catches Lara and immediately, tirelessly, she begins to ascend again. Sometimes people say that Tomb Raider has a feminist message because Lara is a tough chick who carries guns, and I think that’s pretty much nonsense: if there is a hidden social message in TR, it’s a humanist one. Lara is the one we admire, as opposed to Larson or Pierre, not because she’s female, but because she’s the one who strives to understand. She’s the one who’s learned to read the hieroglyphics, she’s the one who won’t tolerate ruins being littered. If you come with arrogance and violence, you truly are a “raider”; Lara is a raider in name only. She’s not entirely there of her own free will: She can never resist exploring, because if she doesn’t, she may never find the source of that voice that’s singing her name.
Completely aside from all of this, this part of the game has a personal resonance to me. When I was young, and TR was the first game I ever played in it’s entirety– I’d played Mario at friends’ houses, but this was the first game I ever played at home, on my own console–I spent a long time on this level. I was still clumsy with the controller, I fell into the water a lot, and I got very frustrated. But I kept at it, because games were still exciting to me, every game was like new uncharted territory in a wonderful fantasyland, and I couldn’t wait to see the next level. Now when I play, I know the level like the back of my hand and I don’t fall at all, but I don’t feel that excitement anymore, because I know what’s ahead, and no game will ever excite me in the same way. I don’t fall in the water and I complete the level, but I can never go back to that time.
This entry is probably too close to literary analysis for a lot of people, and if you’ve been completely soured on the whole subject by pompous, overblown academic writing, I can’t really blame you. I’m attempting to describe what that tiny lump in my throat is when I play this part of the level. I don’t think about any of this consciously while I play, but this is what happens when I try to articulate that feeling. I pass this part of the level, I collect my thoughts, I pull a few switches, and I celebrate the beauty of discovery, the unknown. I plunder the last of the secret rooms, and I take a final swim. On some level, I mourn the loss of my childhood.
And then there’s another fucking bear.
Need I say it? The suspended pathway in the temple. Additionally, the fact that there’s a whole underwater labyrinth that’s completely optional to the main course of the level is pretty awesome. I like levels that give you places to explore that are off the beaten path.
Worst: FUCKING BEARS.
Rating: 5 Uzi Clips out of 5: Still simple compared to the later levels, but it’s a beautiful simplicity.
Next Level: The Lost Valley: In which instead of a religious experience we have a MADE OF AWESOME experience. Totally not a spoiler: Next one is also a 5 uzi-clipper.
If I were to go into great depth about every individual level, this TR project would be about 50,000 pages, so I’m going to give most levels a cursory inspection and only spend time on the ones that strike me as something special. I will also give all levels a rating out of five (medipacks? Uzi clips?), and do a best/worst section. In the event that I have nothing much to say about a level, I’ll just do the rating and the best/worst. Also, I’m not including the bonus levels that were added in the later PC versions because I have the PS originals. If I can find a version of TR Gold that works on my computer, I’ll play the bonus levels.
Caves doesn’t appear to have much going for it; graphically it’s the blandest level ever. Since it’s the first level, there isn’t much difficulty, and Lara is still on the outskirts of the ancient city, so there’s a lot of stone and grass and only small touches of Incan artwork. However, what it does do marvelously well is establish a mood that will persist throughout the entire game. Lara is alone, in a cave, exploring areas that haven’t been seen by human eyes in decades, if not longer. The architecture, what’s left of it, is grown over, if still majestic at times. Except for occasional whispers of sound, it is silent. Lara is a breath of life in a dead world. Even the presence of animal life doesn’t add any warmth; starvation has driven the wolves hostile. Anything that survives here, does so just barely.
They also introduce all of the most significant exploration features: Lara turns her head to look at a significant area (from the very beginning she always mysteriously knows things that you do not), music is rare and only appears when something important is about to happen and you need to step up your game, and if you’re thorough, you can hear that deeply satisfying “ta-dah!” sound that heralds a secret multiple times.
We also get the first Bear of the game, who functions as a kind of hidden mini-boss (it’s not necessary to kill him, but you get access to another medipack if you do), showing that Tomb Raider was taking the fight to the bears ten years before Stephen Colbert made it cool. Should you make the mistake of fighting the bear up close and personal instead of plinking away at it from a safe perch, you will learn very swiftly that the only good bear in Tomb Raider is a dead bear. The same applies to T-Rexes, but that’s later.
Best: Backflipping up the marble stairs away from the wolves while the TR action theme plays. Still exhilarating after all these years.
Worst: The timed switch puzzle. In some respects it’s good because it forces you to get a little tighter with the controls if you’ve just been winging it up to now, but the controls in TR aren’t well suited for this sort of puzzle. Fortunately the grand majority of the puzzles in the game are not timed.
Overall Ranking: 2 Uzi Clips out of 5. It’s simple, but it has to score higher than 1 because a)It’s good enough to lure you into playing the rest of the game b) the simplicity is intentional and c)the occasional musical cues add a lot of atmosphere.
A quick take on Lara Croft in MS Paint; I find doodling in paint to be surprisingly fun. She looks kind of worried that raptors are about to sneak up on her, though.
When I first started playing Tomb Raider in high school, I was briefly obsessed with the game and commented to a classmate that I would love to be a professional tomb raider when I grew up. It seemed so perfect: I had long brown hair, I was kind of a stuck-up bitch, I liked nature hikes and firearms and shiny things, so I was halfway to being Lara already.
Then this dude reminded me that another term for tomb raiding is grave robbing, and that kind of took all the fun out of that idea. It’s kind of like how Pirates of the Caribbean (or any of the dozens of Japanese RPGs that romanticize pirating), can get you really psyched up about the idea of being a pirate, until you remember that regardless of whether or not they’re charming rogues, pirates are thieves. And additionally, they might even rape and pillage. It’s not a pretty picture.
Suffice to say, tomb raiding is one of those pursuits best left exclusively to video games. One of my ideas for game blogging was to play through all of the TR games, in order, and write about them like some sort of adventure game anthropologist. Keep in mind that while this entry marks the beginning of that project, I fully expect to die somewhere in the middle of The Last Revelation— if I’m lucky.
There are several possible interpretations of that statement, all of them macabre.
Before delving into the original Tomb Raider as a game, I want to address the subject of Ms. Croft herself. She’s been so incredibly over-exposed as a character that it may seem like there’s nothing left to say about her, but it’s important to note that Lara as she appears in classic Tomb Raider is essentially a different character from the incarnation in the later games and the movies.
Original Lara was a woman of few words, classy as she was concise, and only carried weapons because large jungle cats tended to try to kill her if she wasn’t careful. She was primarily an archeologist and a writer with a passion for exploring, and if she was also an action hero, she performed that role as a means to an end. Basically, original Lara was far more likeable and alluring because you were given very little information about her, she handled herself very capably, and the game really wasn’t trying to hit you over the head with how awesome she was.
After the huge success of the first TR, from the sequel onwards Lara evolved into one of those obnoxiously self-aware movie badasses, who possesses a huge wardrobe of sexy adventuring gear and doesn’t need much provocation to shoot someone in the head. I wouldn’t dismiss the later games and movies, since there’s a lot more to TR than just Lara, but I think you have to have a sense of this evolution of her portrayal in order to understand my tremendous affection for the original character of Lara– When I say Lara, unless you played this game when it came out, chances are you are not associating the same character with the name.
Another thing to keep in mind about her is her age; It’s very telling that Lara was conceived of as a character who was around 30 years of age, if not older. By any reasonable standard that’s still pretty young, but when you sit back and think about it, it’s astonishing how rare that is in video games. The last thing I ever want to do is go on some sort of indignant feminist rant (seriously, if I ever start doing that, just shoot me. Like an injured race horse), BUT, the fact remains that women tend to stop appearing in games after they hit the ripe old age of 18, or early 20s at the latest. It’s getting a bit better now- in Metal Gear Solid 4 for example, both Meryl and Naomi are supposed to be post-30 and still babes, if professional ones–but in 1995, usually the only females above a certain age were the apron-adorned mothers who stayed in the house in Japanese RPGs, and sometimes doled out fruit and/or free healing.
In the case of Lara, the developers were forced to make her a little older because the character type they were going for was so experienced and erudite that making her too young would have rang false. That presumed experience and intelligence is very appealing in a character, at least if you’re like me and are tired of playing as either plucky ten year old boys, or virile special forces types who wouldn’t know a book if it bit them on their well-muscled gluteus maximus.
Like Final Fantasy VII, Tomb Raider is a game that you can’t really give it’s proper due without taking into account the zeitgeist of the time. Many of the features that were so innovative at the time have become bread-and-butter features in games with any sort of adventure component, and the things that made us miss sleep to play it in the mid-90s are hard to even imagine now. I remember being motivated to beat the next set of levels as soon as a I could so I could see the next FMV of Lara in action, because you only got one cinematic for hours upon hours of gameplay, and as a result, every single one was critically important to the plot.
Today, the overabundance of video game cinematics has become such an epidemic that we rate scenes on a kind of Kafkaesque “Sandwich scale”, or how many sandwiches you could make and consume while the characters on your screen preen and emote like first-year drama majors and generally refuse to SHUT THE HELL UP.
The sparse use of music in TR caused you to have strong emotional connections to individual music cues, whereas now games have full Hans Zimmer scores and hearing a full orchestral track in the background of the most mundane parts of a game is completely normal. The graphics had just reached the level where you could believe you were in an immersive world if you engaged your imagination and pretended that ammunition totally would be at the bottom of a pristine mountain lake and the whole world is made up of squares– nowadays, if you have to use your imagination at all in most games, the graphics have failed. The world of TR was like an impressionist painting, the graphics we see now are a hyper-real simulation. It’s a very different aesthetic.
At the time, TR opened the door for the future of gaming, while thematically being based on nostalgia for the past. You were using the newest technology of the time to explore the ruins of human civilization, and there was a certain reverence there for the past that was moving in a way that I’ve never encountered in another game. The TR franchise, and others as well, have explored environments drawn from lost cultures since, but never with the same perfect meeting of the future and the past. Current game environments tell us with authority what they think the past was like; the blocky, pointellistic environments of Tomb Raider were not a statement, but a suggestion: Wouldn’t it be nice if it had been like this?
Note: This, and the first three level entries, were originally posted on my Destructoid blog, Gaming Goddess. Since I lost a few of my posts the last time they updated their site, I decided I should move it here for posterity. Yes, I do intend to continue blogging TR, I was just busy for a while….
Note: This was written before the releases of episode 12.5.
You know, I kept meaning to do this academic-type analysis of Durarara!! It would be all deep and brilliant and stuff, and I’d win all sorts of awards for literary analysis that exist solely in my mind, but the more time I spend thinking about it, the more I’m confused about what to make of the show. What I’ve realized is that I can point to a lot of themes in the show that I find interesting, but I can’t cobble my analysis of those themes together into anything terribly coherent. Rather than continue to wait for that magical day when I truly start to “get” Durarara!!, I figured maybe I should just share with fans of the show the things that I find so darned fascinating.
Themes of Durarara!!:
1. Real power pales in comparison to virtual power
One of the things that makes Heiwajima Shizuo so endearing is that, despite his overwhelming strength and the fact that he’s made of about fifteen buckets of liquid sex, the guy is kind of a loser. He’s constantly complaining about his own cowardice, and seems to be stuck in a rut in his life; being an enforcer for a loan shark may be fitting work for a man of his talents, but I don’t think it’s exactly what Little Shizuo (of the brown hair*) was hoping to be when he grew up. While he has what characters on the show call “overwhelming power,” what exactly does he use it for? More often then not, the vending machines and garbage cans he throws don’t actually hit anybody (although I still think it’s kind of bullshit that Izaya didn’t bite it on the spot the one time he nailed him with one, but I digress.)
Mikado, at first glance, appears to be more the lovable loser-type. However, over the course of the show, he proves to be more powerful than Shizuo. There’s obviously a hard power vs. soft power divide (Shizuo moves things; Mikado influences multiple people to move multiple things), but it actually goes beyond that.
Shizuo’s power is predictable; he knows that when he picks up a vending machine and throws it, it will indeed travel a certain distance. Mikado’s power is much more nebulous; if he tells the Dollars to do something, they might just do it. They might also misinterpret it and do something else. They also might subdivide into smaller groups, some of which will do what he wants, and some of which will do the opposite.
Anri thinks that she has total control over the Saika army, and does; Kida thinks he has far more control over the Yellow Scarves than he does. Still it’s Mikado’s nebulous, pretty much completely unreliable power, in the form of the Dollars, that proves the most effective, and gives the show it’s name.
The easy summary is that, in a world of constant, instantaneous communication, an idea is the most powerful thing in the world-okay, fair enough. However, what is the key idea behind the Dollars? There really isn’t one; it’s the idea of having an open-ended idea. It’s an ideology based solely on the idea of not subscribing to other ideologies. So, perhaps, the most powerful thing in the world is the idea of people sharing a group identity that changes according to each person’s individual needs; people join in the belief in their right to carve their own identity. The desire to find the perfect balance between community, belonging, and independence.**
2. In a world of constant communication of ideas, real identities and mythic identities become interchangeable.
One thing that continues to puzzle me is Celty’s relative normalcy compared to the other characters. In the second half of the show, the mysterious faerie creature from Ireland becomes the closest thing we have to a POV character. Early in the show, it seemed like the exploration of Celty’s background in episode 4 marked the descent of the series from a solid, meat-and-potatoes drama with a hint of magical realism to a realm of supernatural hijinks galore. However, rather than dragging the show off to magical la-la-land, never do we feel more grounded then when Celty is there, being her sensible, likable self.
To use Mikado as a point of comparison again, both characters have a kind of mythic status on the internet; Celty more literally, as an urban legend whom people actually refer to as an urban legend, and Mikado in a more general sense. People believe that there is a “leader” behind the Dollars, but no one knows who he is, or if he really is just one person; he’s an urban myth in his own right. Now, Mikado is actually a flesh-and-blood human, while Celty is something that logically shouldn’t exist, yet as far as the show is concerned, it doesn’t seem to matter. If both of these characters are “myths” in the opinion of the majority of the characters that populate the world of the show, how much does it matter that only one of them is actually a creature of the faerie realm?
Yes, it’s one of those annoying “if a tree falls in the forest” questions; even though Mikado is an average, everyday human, if the grand majority of the people in the world see him as otherwise, does it really matter that he doesn’t have cool Dullahan powers like Celty does? Is he any less a myth because he happens to have a pulse?
To return to Shizuo, he doesn’t have mythical powers- there’s a quasi-plausible explanation for his feats of Herculean strength. I’m honestly not sure what to make of this; the framework of the show certainly allows for him to just have magical powers without needing any sort of half-assed, ‘realistic’ explanation. He could have just been born really strong for no apparent reason, and it would not be remotely strange in the world of the show.
To be honest, I’m confused to what extent Shizuo is a mythic figure, which is probably appropriate considering that that’s how characters on the show feel- the reporter certainly does. Maybe it’s as simple as that.
3. Even when they are distinct, choosing between myth and reality is a matter of choice
Honestly, I was wondering what the hell the point of Walker and Karisawa was for a while. Constant otaku in-jokes? Really? Is that all there was to this pair?
It wasn’t until late in the series, when Erika Karisawa revealed her doctrine of reality-by-choice; things that happen in reality have equal value to things that happen in your favorite fictional world, and you can choose which ideas you subscribe to at any moment- that I started to see a point to them.
They don’t reject reality in favor of fantasy worlds like complete otaku shut-ins do; no, the part I find fascinating is that they give them both equal value. They don’t run away from reality, but their reality is subjective; they shape it to their needs. That’s how the seemingly harmless Walker can become a bad-ass supreme when necessary; he just channels a little bit of verve from his favorite manga hero, and suddenly the whole enterprise feels different and he’s a different person.
It may seem irresponsible to live like that, but how else to respond to a world where an Irish faerie and a normal high-school kid are both equally mythic figures, because the shared consciousness of mass communication has destroyed the traditional divide between myth and reality? If reality has gone screwy, are they wrong to make sure it goes screwy the way they like it?
The Dreaded “in summation”
Okay, I think all I’ve really done here is confused myself more, however, I have ascertained this much; in a world where so much of one’s identity is determined in other people’s minds via the accessibility of mass-communication, it almost doesn’t matter who you are behind the keyboard, the iPad or the phone. The only difference between the world of Durarara!! and our own is that we still have that ‘almost’ in there. The show has taken the idea to it’s logical extremity- it might be a high school kid behind that handle, or it might be a centuries-old Dullahan; in the end, it’s all the same, because no one really knows who anyone else is anyway.
I’ve just realized that I wrote this much about Durarara!! and didn’t even mention Celty’s head. Oh dear; maybe next time.
*By the way, I think the implication is that Shizuo dyes his hair blond to a)break with his past and b)make himself look more distinct from his brother. He’s certainly not doing it to get attention from the ladies.
**I mean, I think the idea of finding a balance between losing oneself in a community and staking out one’s own identity is at the heart of the show, but summing it up in that sentence doesn’t really do it justice. I think there’s more going on.